disabled parking symbol 080 medium

Richness found in facing our biases

By Anna Campbell

Racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, sizeism, classism, you name it, chances are you have been exposed to - or demonstrated - some sort of ''ism''.

Most of us want to believe we treat people fairly and equitably. The reality is that no matter who we are, we will feel more comfortable when among ''our tribe''. Take a look at the average Kiwi barbecue and you will see this in action; men clustered with men around the barbecue, and women clustered with women in the kitchen.

This type of behaviour is understandable. In new or unknown situations, we stick with what or who we know - it might take a couple of drinks or a social group member to begin the process of ''crossing the dance floor''.

''Isms'' are what happens when we block entrants from other tribes from joining us, and there is overwhelming evidence of the detrimental effect this has on organisational success.

Companies and not-for-profits very rarely have one narrow band of customers, and they never have one narrow band of risks, challenges or opportunities. Diversity of thought is critical in achieving optimal performance in any level of any organisation, and that comes from having diverse people in roles at all levels.

So, how do you know if you are biased, unconscious or otherwise? Start by taking a look around - who are your friends, your work colleagues? If it's looking a bit vanilla, it might be worth exploring further through some online tests. I have sat tests from: https://www.unconscious- bias.co.uk/ and https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/

These tests bring out what is unconscious, so therefore, the results may come as a surprise. I did four tests and according to my results, I am not unconsciously biased towards gender, race or body size. However, what did shock me, is that I am highly unconsciously biased against disabled people.

I have had some time to reflect on this, why it may be and what I might do about it. I know I get impatient and want things done quickly and perhaps that has led to a bias towards people who look like they can do things quickly - i.e able-bodied people. This of course is ridiculous - a leg disability, for example, has no impact on how quick someone's brain is - but no-one said biases were rational.

The other thing I have come up with is that I am not in a career where I often deal with people who are sick or suffering, be it mental or physical. This means I am staying within my able-bodied tribe.

I have been drawn to think about when I was forced to move outside this tribe, when my father was sick with early-onset and advanced dementia, and how I dealt with this. I have to say, his diagnosis was extraordinarily confronting for me. One of the reasons it was so confronting was that when we were out publicly, he looked ''normal'', but behaved ''abnormally''.

In a cafe he would suddenly start singing, and once he even leaned over to the table next door to turn the page of the newspaper that our unknown neighbour was reading. On another outing to watch my son play hockey, I was engaged chatting with a friend on the sideline, when another friend asked, ''Anna, isn't that your father walking on to the field?'' These are amusing anecdotes, but there are many more which are too tough to write about.

Dealing with my sick dad was my first entry into being out and about with someone with a ''non-normal'' brain and the responses we received in public. When thinking about this and my poor test result, I ask why would I, or anyone else, bother working on overcoming our biases?

I think it comes down to more than organisational efficiencies. It's as simple as looking around and asking what richness am I missing out on by limiting myself to my tribe, and how am I making others feel about themselves?

A big part of our lives will be memories of people who have touched us in different ways; those who have enriched our lives and those with whom we have shared an unexpected laugh. It took me a long time to accept my dad's illness. When he was sick I grieved for the man he had been, the lost conversations and his tremendous ability in nearly everything he did.

When he died, I grieved for the man who he was when he was sick. Somewhere along that pathway, I had overcome my fear of his illness and learned to love him for who he was. I am richer for that.